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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Walking the walk

    In the aisles at FMI, the smartest grocers know people are the best products to offer.

    Meet Australian retailers Mark and Tina Reddrop. Members of the Australian United Retailers, Ltd. alliance, the Reddrops, along with their 300-plus associates, run five FoodWorks stores, competing head-on with a number of IGA stores Down Under.

    Then there's Rex Stewart, a small operator from the big state of California. Stewart continues to grow sales and boost employee morale through his "Seeds of Success" program at New Leaf Community Markets, headquartered in Santa Cruz.

    At last month's FMI Show, held in Chicago, I had the opportunity to meet with these and numerous other independent storeowners whose operating areas extend across the globe. While their company sizes, geographic concentrations, and store formats may vary widely, one thing these operators and the others profiled below have in common is an unwavering commitment to their associates. Their creative philosophies regarding employee development and their excellent execution in promoting teamwork throughout their organizations are indeed worth recognizing and sharing. Here are some highlights from my encounters:

    Rex Stewart

    As one of the owners of New Leaf Markets, Rex Stewart is convinced that employee education is crucial to the success of his three full-service natural and organic stores.

    Each month the company distributes a learning flier to all of its associates. "Learning" in this case is the operative word, since the associates are quizzed on the contents, and then rewarded for how they perform.

    Additionally, the company has developed a unique program, aptly called "Seeds of Success." At the center of the program are tokens -- known as "seeds" -- that every associate at every level carries during the workday. All week they hand out the tokens as compliments to their co-workers or managers, whenever they witness either of them doing something positive for the company, such as providing outstanding customer service or improving working conditions. Associates accumulate the "seeds" of their good acts, and then exchange them for rewards including free movie tickets and gift certificates.

    Ignacio Fimbres

    Perusing the FMI Show floor in the company of his equipment buyer, Alfredo Hernandez, Ignacio Fimbres is on the lookout for ideas that will help his 60-year old company operate more efficiently. For Fimbres, that search for efficiencies must extend to human resources as surely as it extends to inventory controls or buying processes.

    "As Calimax has experienced tremendous growth in the past few years, it was important for us to 'right-size' the human resources department," explains Fimbres, c.e.o. of the 50-store chain. "The department at one time was much too big, and we decided it was best to restructure. We are now undergoing that process, and our goal is to focus on training and development programs for store-level employees and our senior managers. We're still searching for a leader for the department who has obtained experience in setting up training programs. Hiring the right person for this position is critical.

    "We are a great Mexican company that is expanding and growing," adds Hernandez. "The company values personnel as its key asset."

    David Vergel

    Established in 2004, La Coruna Foods distributes seafood products to supermarkets operating in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Led by its founder and c.e.o., David Vergel, the company employs 20 associates and is growing sales at the rate of 20 percent annually.

    "We hire for personality, and everyone that joins the company must begin at the bottom and work their way up," says Vergel. "We operate as a big family that supports one another, both at work and at home. When an associate is expecting a newborn, for example, all of us go together and buy the crib and all the necessary supplies. We also help to prepare the baby's nursery by going to the house and painting the walls and decorating the baby's room."

    Supporting local charities is also a priority for the La Coruna team. "During Holy Week we work together on community efforts, and that helps us to build the culture of our company," notes Vergel. "This year we helped to rebuild a house for a needy family. We worked on plumbing, electrical, cleaning a garden, arranging furniture, and many other jobs."

    Accompanying Vergel at this year's FMI Show are Jose Rivera, who was initially brought on board as a truck driver and now serves as the v.p. of operations, and Roberto Sierra, Vergel's newly hired assistant and translator.

    "We support each other in wrong or right, and there is no fear of failure," says Rivera. "And we help each other to grow. A few years ago I was only driving a truck for La Coruna, and now I am serving as part of our management team. I am able to treat the company like it is my own. When you work here and you have a problem, everyone has a problem, and we work together to fix things."

    "No negative talk is permitted at the company," notes Sierra. "We focus on respecting one another and the opportunity to grow."

    Pedro Pereira da Silva

    Operating 840 supermarkets in Poland, along with another 280 in Portugal, is no doubt an enormous challenge for Pedro Pereira da Silva, the c.e.o. of Biedronka, an international retail food store chain. With more than 50,000 employees, the executive describes his Siedziba, Poland-based company as "a big machine" that operates efficiently by focusing always on "four pillars of trust."

    "We are a trustful employer," says Pereira da Silva. "We are also trustful towards the environment, our company is a trustful member of society, and we take very seriously our corporate social responsibility."

    He adds, "We enforce our pillars of trust at our training and management academies, and in our everyday work activities."

    Michael and Tina Reddrop

    Accompanying storeowners Michael and Tina Reddrop at the FMI Show are seven key associates, including two store directors, Jan Hughes and Linda Hughes, and the company's IT director, Suzanne Bulman.

    "We view FMI as an opportunity to help our personnel grow," says Michael Reddrop, the second-generation c.e.o. of the family-owned business. "They get to see the U.S. market firsthand and understand how it operates. It's our best opportunity to learn."

    "We so much admire companies like Ukrop's and feel fortunate to have been invited to spend time with the company," adds business manager Tina Reddrop. "They've taught us to focus not on how much employee and consumer programs cost, but how much they return."

    Pat Raybould

    B&R Stores relies on a secret-shopper program to ensure that its associates are always focused on customers.

    "We instituted the program four or five years ago, and it continues to be very effective," says company president Pat Raybould. "We now focus mainly on the fresh departments, along with the experience at the checkout. When an associate receives 100 percent on their shop, they're presented with a $20 reward on their next paycheck."

    Steve Smith

    It's always a pleasure to catch up with K-VA-T president and c.e.o. Steve Smith, who along with his associates operates 96 supermarkets throughout Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee.

    Under Smith's strong leadership, in recent years the company, which operates its own distribution center, has experienced unprecedented growth, mainly through acquisition.

    "Back in the 1980s we operated 11 stores and generated $90 million in sales each year," says Smith. "I credit our ESOP (employee stock ownership program) for much of our success. Our company now generates over $1.5 billion in annual sales.

    "I often think of the old saying 'Nobody ever washes a rented car,'" adds Smith with a smile. "Sixteen percent of our company is employee-owned by both full-time and part-time associates -- and we're all much better off because of it."

    Independent Retailing Editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at [email protected].

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